Water is getting to be a big business in Minnesota.
In 2012 alone Minnesota water-technology firms sold to foreign buyers nearly $750 million worth of water and wastewater treatment equipment and services to an increasingly water-short world.
Last week, the big Minnesota-based likes of Ecolab, Pentair, General Electric Water & Process Technology and 3M came together at a state-sponsored water summit, to compare notes on how to produce, conserve and recycle precious water with the least amount of energy.
Pristine Environmental, one of the smaller attendees, has invented the “Mud Hen” portable concrete slurry-water system, which is making ripples in the industrial-water pond.
The 16-employee company, based in St. Joseph near St. Cloud, is a 12-year-old venture that expects to nearly double sales to $4 million this year in Minnesota, the U.S. and internationally.
CEO Joe Meyer of Pristine and its parent company, Full Circle Water, are finding growing demand for the $15,000-a-copy Mud Hen, which processes up to 20 gallons of concrete or granite slurry water per minute, and stores up to 3.5 cubic feet of concrete sludge before a 10-minute cleaning is required.
Minnesota, which is one of the Big Ten water-industry states, also wants to do a better job promoting the industry around the country and the globe.
“Climate change has led to greater water scarcity,” said Steve Riedel, a veteran Minnesota Trade officer. “Just about everywhere, groundwater resources are being depleted at unsustainable rates. While not yet a crisis everywhere, these longer-term trends … also represent a business challenge and opportunity. If water is critically short somewhere, a company that uses water to manufacture something might not be able to stay in business. So water conservation technologies and strategies are in especially high demand these days.”
Which brings us back to the Mud Hen. Meyer and his brother started with an idea to distribute a new type of drinking-water cooler through copier-company distribution networks. The “Avista” business didn’t work in the Twin Cities against the well-established likes of Culligan, Glenwood Inglewood and others. But it took hold in Las Vegas under brother Peter Meyer, where Pristine added a sales office to serve the water-short Southwest.
Several Avista customers, who happened to be concrete resurfacing and countertop manufacturers, were complaining about their growing water-and-sewer bills. They could be several thousand dollars a month. And they were getting fined for violating pollution ordinances that limit the amount of slurry that can be dumped down storm- and sanitary-sewer drains.
By 2005, Pristine had developed a customized, closed-loop water-treatment system with off-the-shelf technology and some in-shop fabrication. Each installation can run from $25,000 to $75,000 More than 90 percent of the sludge is removed through a series of inclined-angled plates, and the payback is six months to several years depending upon the sewer-and-water expenses.
Several customers wanted a portable system that could be used in smaller shops or at remote concrete-floor jobs. Meyer and his brother designed the Mud Hen with help from consulting engineers. They sold the first one in 2009. By 2010, they had a growing business selling to cement and concrete restoration contractors, the mining industry and swimming pool contractors.
“The contractor can do a new Home Depot or Pawn America or Costco or Whole Foods floor with just a few hundred gallons of water instead of thousands of gallons,” Meyer said. “It’s not uncommon for a contractor to spend several thousand a month handling the slurry at different sites. The Mud Hen costs just a few hundred dollars a year to operate. We expect each unit will last over 10 years.”
Said customer Nick Taulelle of Act Restoration in St. Michael, Minn.: “We grind concrete with diamond pads and we use water to speed the process and keep the pads and heads cool. The slurry we generate is wet and considered hazardous, so we can’t drain it or put it in a dumpster.
“We take the Mud Hen and pump the slurry into the machine and clean, reusable water comes out that we can use again. On a typical [commercial store or warehouse] job we might use 1,000 gallons of water a day without the Mud Hen. With it, we bring in, say, 100 gallons of water. We just keep reusing the water until the end of the job. We lose a little through evaporation. I would say the Mud Hen payback was about a year.”
Meyer, 45, who lives on a small farm with his family near St. Joseph, says the goal is to cross $10 million in sales within five years. The firm lost money from 2007 to 2009, between the recession and investment in the Mud Hen. But it’s debt-free and cash flowing today. Meyer is putting in a profit-sharing plan for shop employees, who average about $15 an hour.
“I love to come to work and try and figure out how to solve a customer problem,” he said.